How Can You Tell It’s Gluten-Free?

Gluten Rich BreadsBy Tricia Thompson, MS, RD

You are eating gluten-free and planning your first trip to the grocery store. But how do you know whether a food is gluten-free? Believe it or not, gluten-free grocery shopping has never been easier.

Natural food stores like Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods as well as an increasing number of regular supermarkets sell an abundance of foods labeled “gluten-free.” For foods not labeled “gluten-free” you can tell if they are made using gluten-free ingredients by reading the food label.

Regulations and Improved Labeling Practices
Make It Easier to Identify Gluten-Free Products

In general, to determine whether a food product is made with gluten-containing ingredients, you want to look for 5 words: Wheat, barley, rye, oats, and malt. With a few exceptions, if you see any of these words on an ingredients list or a “contains” statement, the food is not gluten-free.

This simplified label reading is due in large part to the Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act (FALCPA). This act mandates that if an ingredient in a food product contains protein from wheat, the word “wheat” must be included on the food label. FALCPA applies to foods regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), as are all foods with the exception of meat, poultry and egg products.

This means that you no longer have to sweat over many of the usual suspect ingredients such as modified food starch and dextrin to name a couple. Regardless of whether these ingredients are included in a FDA-regulated food product, if you don’t see the word “wheat” on the label, the food does not include any ingredients containing wheat protein. It really is that simple.

FALCPA does not apply to barley, rye and oats, but most ingredients that were questionable in the past were suspect because of the possibility they contained wheat. If barley is contained in a food product, the ingredient name will almost always include the word “barley” or “malt.” Ingredients that contain rye and oats will generally include the words “rye” and “oats”.

Like with all rules, there are exceptions. Occasionally a food product may contain wheat protein or oats and still be labeled “gluten-free.”

If a product containing oats is labeled “gluten-free,” then it is made using specially produced oats that have not been contaminated with wheat, barley or rye. Remember, the reason most oats are avoided on the gluten-free diet is because of contamination. Oats themselves do not contain gluten. In fact, due to contamination issues with oats, you should not eat any oat product that is not labeled “gluten-free.”

Occasionally, you may come across a product labeled “gluten-free” that also has the word “wheat” in the ingredients list or “contains” statement. How can this be? Under FALCPA, if a food product contains any amount of wheat protein, the word “wheat” must be included in the ingredients list or “contains” statement. Under the FDA’s proposed rules for use of the term “gluten-free” on food labels, if a product containing wheat protein has less than 20 parts per million of gluten, the product may be labeled “gluten-free.” Rest assured this is an extremely small amount. Studies conducted on the amount of gluten that may be safely consumed without causing damage to the intestine indicate that this amount of gluten is safe.

You may be wondering about foods not regulated by the FDA such as meat, poultry and eggs. These foods are regulated by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA). The agency is currently working on rules for allergen labeling similar to FALCPA. Until new laws are finalized, the USDA encourages manufacturers to clearly name allergens, including wheat on food labels. This is a voluntary, not mandatory measure at this point.

Even with regulated food products, there are only a few ingredients that should cause any concern. Modified food starch and dextrin may give you pause if their source is not named. You may want to find another product that does not contain these ingredients, or contact the manufacturer to verify gluten-free status.

To read more about The Food Allergen Labeling and Consumer Protection Act and the FDA’s proposed rule for gluten-free labeling, please visit: and

Tricia Thompson, MS, RD is a nutrition consultant, author and speaker specializing in celiac disease and gluten-free diet. She is the author of “The Gluten-Free Nutrition Guide” (McGraw-Hill) and co-author of “The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Gluten-Free Eating” (Penguin Group).

This article was originally published on

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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